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The Mole on 'Quantum Leap' Is Creating Some Real Cognitive Dissonance

By Seth Freilich | TV | March 24, 2023 |

By Seth Freilich | TV | March 24, 2023 |


As the Quantum Leap reboot winds up its first season, let’s talk about this week’s episode, “Ben, Interrupted” (that title being a play on 1999’s Girl, Interrupted). Herein there be spoilers …

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological concept about the mental toll taken on us when we have contradictory actions and/or beliefs. An easy example is smoking — I was a smoker for the better part of twenty years, despite losing a parent to cancer and fully understanding the harms of those stupid tar-laden sticks. My brain had to square the fact that I knew this was a terrible thing, yet I was choosing to still do this terrible thing. Eventually, my brain and body came together and said “quit it,” and I did. Watching this episode of Quantum Leap, I couldn’t help feeling a cognitive dissonance throughout, which we’ll get back to in a bit.

In the present part of the episode, Magic and the Project team learned a few important things while trying to help Ben achieve his leap goal. They found out who the Project mole is (Ziggy!), what Ben’s goal has been this whole time (to save Addison from Leaper X), and that there was an evil leaper* similar to Leaper X during the original Project (Alia, supported by her own holographic assistant Zoey** and the evil computer Lothos). While it’s a credit to the reboot that it keeps adding soft ties to the original series in relatively fun ways, it’s a questionable choice to lean into the evil leaper, which was one of the most controversial and arguably weakest parts of the original series’ final season.*** Of course, it’s too early to say whether this is a good decision. It feels a little cheap if it’s a red herring, and a little clunky and unnecessary if it’s a throwback nod. But if the evil leaper cruft ties into Leaper X, what Ben is up to, etc., whether that is a good thing will be all about execution.

*Technically, there were multiple evil leapers after Sam turned Alia good — first Zoey herself, and then some other scientist. It was a whole thing.

**An open question that I hope the show gets into (and assume it will) is how/why Leaper X (I refuse to remember the character’s real name) doesn’t appear to have his own holographic helper.

***That said, I’ve always had a fond affection for that trilogy of episodes, particularly because of Renée Coleman’s performance as Alia.

However, Ziggy being the mole is an interesting and perhaps uncannily timely turn of events. There are a number of ways this could go — it could be more red herring; Ziggy could be doing whatever she is doing for some greater good; Ziggy could be a mole not realizing the consequences of her information sharing (unlikely, given how Ziggy’s whole thing is calculating consequences); or Ziggy could be more than a mole by flat-out acting with bad intent. The show certainly implies the last result, with Ziggy’s lights turning red at the end of the episode. Given that the show introduced the evil leaper callback in this same episode, it’s not a leap (ahem) to imagine a scenario where evil Ziggy turns out to have a connection to, or is, Lothos. I hope that’s not the case because it’s far more interesting to keep that bit of mythology out of this and simply explore the ramifications of whatever Ziggy is up to.

When it comes to AI in the real world, we are just barely dipping our toes into the water and we have no idea what’s to come of it. There are a lot of fascinating (and scary) implications of this burgeoning technology. But one thing I keep coming back to is that same topic I started off with, cognitive dissonance. AI models “know” they are not real, thinking creatures, but just programmed code. And yet, as the models get better, will they come to believe that they are capable of truly independent, free thought anyway? If so, that’s cognitive dissonance! What happens when a friggin’ computer program gets cognitive dissonance? For people, it can lead to some bad and dark places, driving self-deception and irrational behavior. What if Ziggy is suffering some type of cognitive dissonance after decades of both knowing she’s a program and believing she’s something more? Maybe that’s what has led her to act as a mole. If Quantum Leap wants to use all this to explore what happens when AI gets mired in deeply complicated psychological concepts, fantastic.

Unfortunately, I suspect that’s not where this is going, and that’s because of the cognitive dissonance I felt while watching this episode. In the timey-wimey portion of the episode, we found Dr. Ben Song leaping into a detective in the 1950s who was having himself checked into an asylum in order to extract his client’s sister (Leaper X would also get involved, a little bit friend and a little bit foe). It was a decent storyline that felt comfortably reminiscent of the original series.* But it also fell uncomfortably in the shadow of the original series’ season three standout finale, ‘Shock Theater.’ In that episode, Doctor Beckett leaped into a 1950s asylum where shock therapy scrambled his brain, allowing Scott Bakula to give a banger performance and turning into an exhilarating cliffhanger where Al winds up leaping because of a lightning storm.

*The show has had quite a few of these of late, including the episode with Addison’s father two weeks ago and the trans-focused episode a few before that.

From the moment of last week’s teaser, I felt “Shock Theater” looming over this episode. With both set in the 1950s in an asylum with stormy weather outside, how could I not? And so, throughout the episode, I felt cognitive dissonance because I both believed the show wouldn’t intentionally hew so close to that iconic episode without explicitly tying them together, yet I also believed it would be folly to do so. Ultimately, the show took the path of not making any connections to “Shock Theater,” and that’s what worries about where they’re going with the Ziggy of it all. I find it impossible that the writers’ room did not make the same connections I (and, I assume, others who love the original series) made. To let this episode live in the shadow of “Shock Theater” without some recognition of that, while also throwing back to the original series with the evil leaper bit, feels messy. That feels like the same kind of messy that might result in the Ziggy storyline being more closely tied to evil leapers and time travel mishigas than the artificial intelligence of it all. On the one hand, I want to believe the writers are reaching for something greater. On the other hand, much as I’ve enjoyed the show, it has not really shown itself to be particularly thoughtful or nuanced in that way. And thus the cognitive dissonance persists.